Key Point: This weapon served the Australians well. Here is how it made its fame.
A casual observer of World War II photographs after 1943 will often notice slouch hat- or beret-wearing Australian “diggers,” or armed Melanesian natives in the Australian Constabulary battalions, slogging through the muck and jungle of New Guinea, Bougainville, New Britain, and Borneo carrying a rather odd-looking weapon with a vertical top-mounting magazine.
It was the Owen submachine gun (SMG) or Owen machine carbine, and the Australian infantry often favorably referred to it as the “Digger’s Darling.” According to historian Michael Haskew, the “blowback-operated Owen was the only weapon of its type developed in Australia and used in World War II…. It reached service with the Australian Army in 1943 and fired the 9mm (.35in) Parabellum cartridge fed by a 32-round detachable magazine.”
Eventually, about 50,000 Owen SMGs were produced, primarily for jungle use. The firearm’s developmental history, however, had some political hurdles and obstacles, which delayed its implementation to frontline Australian infantrymen combating the tenacious Japanese, who were on the defensive by the time the Owen gun appeared in combat. Prior to the Owen gun’s introduction, each Australian infantry section commander carried a Thompson 1928A1 SMG. The very expensive Thompson was extremely effective at close quarters but could not withstand the punishment of a jungle environment and was prone to jamming, necessitating almost constant field stripping and cleaning.
The history of the Owen gun’s development aptly begins with Evelyn Ernest Owen, who was born on May 15, 1915, and hailed from Wollongong, a seaside city located in the Illawarra region of New South Wales, Australia, just over 50 miles south of Sydney. From a young age, Owen enjoyed tinkering, which gradually progressed to designing his own guns and home-made bombs. As he grew up, Owen, without any formal engineering or firearms training, concentrated on the theory of ballistics and matured from working on single-shot firearms to machine guns. His goal was to design a machine gun with a high rate of fire possessing inherent simplicity in design and with the bolt being the only working part. It also had to be accurate and capable of sustained fire without jamming.
Owen started working on this project in 1931 from the bottom up. His gun’s simple construction comprised a barrel, bolt, spring, pistol grip, and a solitary piece of bent steel for a stock. The principle of the Owen SMG was that it operated by the recoil of each shot or “blowback.”
After working on this compact automatic weapon throughout the 1930s, Owen offered the original design for his SMG to the Australian Army at Victoria Barracks in Sydney in 1939. He was 24 years old at the time. Owen’s original prototype for a SMG chambered a .22LR cartridge from a drum-type magazine made from a revolver cylinder. It also used a thumb trigger instead of the normal type. For these design reasons, as well as the gun firing only the light .22 caliber round, the Australian Ordnance Officers in Sydney informed Owen that his weapon would not be suitable for the Army, although it fired accurately and did not jam.
Also, the prototype did not have an effective magazine that could be reloaded or exchanged since the gun essentially used a giant revolver cylinder or steel ring with holes to house the cartridges. Finally, an Australian Army colonel rejected Owen’s gun because Australian Imperial Force (AIF) commanders saw no value in SMGs, stating, “That is an American gangsters’ gun; the army has no use for those.” A prevailing belief among the Australian senior officers was that if a SMG was desired, then it would have to be on British advice and British made.
Following the outbreak of World War II, Owen joined the Australian Army as a private in the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (AIF), as his two older brothers had done. By 1940, Owen had lost enthusiasm for his gun and its unique features. During leave back home before his deployment, he had taken his gun to the beach to fire a few last shots before returning to his unit. Then, a moment of serendipity entered Owen’s SMG saga. After shooting his gun at the beach, Owen joined his friends for some libations, leaving his self-designed weapon in a Hessian bag leaning against a wall that separated his parents’ home from some neighbors.
One of the Owens’ neighbors was Vincent Wardell, the general manager of Lysaght Newcastle Steelworks, a metal fabrication firm located at Port Kembla. Finding a gun barrel protruding from the sack outside his abode, Wardell was intrigued by the firearm’s appearance and started searching for its rightful owner. Per Wardell’s own account, “When I came home from Lysaght’s works late one afternoon in September 1940, Evelyn Owen’s .22 calibre wheel gun was in a sugar bag by a low garden wall at the garage of my flat…. I took the gun into my flat intending to hand it in to the police station. Seeing Mr. Owen [the father] outside I asked him in for a drink and showed him the weapon. He rather ‘exploded’ about his son’s carelessness and told me something of his background.”
Owen wanted to leave for deployment with his battalion and brothers, so further development of the gun was to be undertaken by Wardell and his associates at Lysaght. Now the politics and control of weapons development in wartime Australia would become apparent to Wardell and Owen.
Wardell brought the gun to the attention of Director-General of Munitions Essington Lewis, and as a result of their discussion Owen would eventually be transferred to Melbourne to continue work on his gun. On September 24, 1940, the .22-caliber version was first presented by Owen to a Colonel Meredith, who was a local director of artillery. In a subsequent demonstration on November 14, 1940, it was exhibited to the Central Inventions Board of the Department of Defense Coordination. Captain Cecil Dyer, secretary of this government body, immediately saw the potential for Owen’s gun since Britain faced imminent invasion and Australia’s reliance on arms shipments from the beleaguered British Isles was wholly unrealistic.
With some foresight, Dyer recognized Australia’s need for an inexpensive “home-made” SMG that would be durable in tropical climates, as Japan was becoming even more bellicose in its attempt to gain hegemony in the Pacific. Also, the war in the West was looking bleak for the Allies, who still maintained control of colonial possessions that Imperial Japan was eyeing for conquest. Thus, Dyer commissioned engineering drawings of a gun utilizing Owen’s “blowback action” mechanism and presented them to the inventions board and the principal ordnance engineer.
It seemed that enthusiasm for Owen’s SMG or machine carbine was not meant to be. Due to the “requisite time, effort and monetary costs,” the Australian military leaders decided not to manufacture a prototype. However, there were even more reasons for the delay in production of an Owen SMG. First among them was that senior Australian Army officers, like their British counterparts, had little enthusiasm for SMGs. These officers fostered a bias for true bolt-action rifles and support machine guns like the venerable .303 Vickers Mk I. Their rationale was based erroneously on terrain, which for Europe meant that firepower could be easily transported; however, on Pacific islands like New Guinea, an infantryman’s firepower would have to be carried through dense, humid jungle, across streams, and up and down mountains on rudimentary, narrow trails.
A second reason for not supporting an Owen SMG prototype centered on the Australian Army’s disinterest in a locally manufactured gun. After Australia formally declared war on the Axis in September 1939, the country was required to modernize much of its heavy industry. However, as the Australian military lacked much in the way of producing its own weapons at the outset, a rigid mind-set developed based on taking deliveries of foreign-made guns, tanks, and aircraft. The military leaders were anticipating a large shipment of the British Sten gun that used a 9mm cartridge to arrive from Britain.
Australia’s senior Army staff was anticipating adoption of the Sten gun, and the plans and models for this weapon had been promised to them by the British government. The Australian military apparatus simply did not want to complicate SMG weaponry with competing designs.
In an uncharacteristic move to overcome these bureaucratic hurdles, Dyer personally urged Wardell’s firm, Lysaght Works, to forge ahead and produce prototypes of Owen’s gun design in a variety of different calibers and with different barrels. Ultimately, a design prototype utilizing .32-caliber bullets and part of a .303 Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) barrel enabled Wardell and Owen to resubmit the design to the Inventions Board on January 30, 1941, after just three weeks of retooling. This prototype looked more conventional than Owen’s initial 1939 offering in that it had a traditional trigger, dual pistol grips, and a detachable top-mounted box magazine, which was more easily exchangeable as well as allowing the shooter to fire effectively from the prone position.